Philip Roth for Nobel laureate

October 3, 2011 by · 5 Comments 

This post has been updated (October 4, 2011, 8:47 a.m.)

Rumour has it that the mysterious cabal comprising the Swedish Academy will announce this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature later this week, and I’d like to take this opportunity to add my name to The Millions’ endorsement of Philip Roth for the honour.

When Roth published Sabbath’s Theater in 1995, there were those who suggested it was his magnum opus; with Sabbath’s Theater the author had reached the logical culmination of everything he had been working toward and he might thereafter be expected to retire gracefully into the sunset. Two years later, in 1997, Roth published American Pastoral, the first novel in his American Trilogy – a book that not only proved the predictions wrong, but which stands today as the author’s finest achievement and, in my opinion, one of the finest American postwar novels, period. It won the Pulitzer Prize. The third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, won the PEN-Faulkner Award, as did Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, which made the author the only three-time winner in the award’s history (he also won in 1993 for Operation Shylock). In 2006, when The New York Times Book Review unveiled its list of the best American books published in the past twenty-five years, no fewer than six of Roth’s novels made the cut: The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.

In 2010, Roth won the Man Booker International Prize, a laurel that did not come without controversy. One of the jurors, Carmen Callil, resigned the jury in protest, saying at the time, “I don’t rate him as a writer at all … Emperor’s clothes: in 20 years’ time will anyone read him?” What I would say in response is simply this: Roth’s very first book, Goodbye Columbus, which won the National Book Award, was published in 1959. His most (in)famous novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, which appeared on both the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005, appeared in 1969. Both remain in print today. (As, indeed, does Roth’s entire backlist.) Roth is the only living writer to have his works included in the canonical Library of America series.

But none of the awards and recognitions that have been bestowed on Roth adequately testify to the power of his prose, or to the coruscating effect of reading him. What many of his detractors fail to mention is Roth’s apparent inability to write an uninteresting sentence; his blistering irony; his searing intensity.

What critics seem most often to focus on is his putative misogyny, his self-hating Jewishness, and the explicit sex in his novels. Much of the trouble seems to arise out of Roth’s almost defiant recourse to the facts of his autobiography in his fiction. When Roth published I Married a Communist, a novel that centres on a tell-all book by the protagonist’s estranged wife, many people remarked on the fact that Roth’s own ex-wife, the actress Claire Bloom, had the year before published a tell-all book called Leaving a Doll’s House, about her life with the author. The writer Linda Grant enumerated the similarities between Eve Frame, the wife in Roth’s novel, and Roth’s own recent biography: “Frame is a Jewish actress, so is Bloom. Frame’s second husband is a financier, so was Bloom’s. Eve Frame has a daughter who is a harpist, Bloom’s girl is an opera singer. Ira tells the daughter to move out, Roth did the same. Ira has an affair with the daughter’s best friend; Roth, Bloom alleged, came on to her own daughter’s best friend.” If Roth has a response, it is arguably contained in his novel Exit Ghost, when he has his narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, remark on “the deadly literal-mindedness and vulgarity that attributes everything to its source in a wholly stupid way.”

Regardless, Grant goes on to say that she “would rather read a dozen books of Rothian misogyny (and if there ever was a misogynist, Roth is one) than a single page of Alison Lurie or Carol Shields or Margaret Atwood or E. Annie Proulx,” because in her estimation “Roth may be the last gasp of the novel, the dominating authorial voice with some ideas on how to live and how to live with others: how we are strangers to so many of the details of our own life stories.” Roth’s “dominating authorial voice,” which is inextricably tied up with his power to provoke, is one of the quintessential aspects that gives his work such force. As The Millions accurately points out:

The case for Roth’s candidacy for a Nobel Prize isn’t that he’s a nice guy; it is that he’s a genius, and in Roth’s case, his genius lies in his audacity. Audacity doesn’t play nice. It isn’t politically correct. The peculiar power of audacity lies in its willingness to break rules, trample taboos, shake us awake – and, yes, sometimes, piss us off mightily. Audacity without intelligence begets mindless spectacle, but Philip Roth is the smartest living writer in America, and his work, good and bad, brilliant and puerile, is among the best this country has ever produced.

Finally, this is probably the source of Roth’s enduring power: his willingness to take his material further than pretty much any other writer around, and if readers don’t enjoy the experience, well, he couldn’t really care less. Because, in the end, it’s the emotional honesty of the work that’s important. It’s a kind of brutal honesty that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But to my reading, it’s unparalleled in modern fiction.

UPDATE: And for those who disagree, there’s always this (via The Lisa Simpson Book Club and the CBC’s Erin Balser):